A chapter from the new book by Gary R. Varner, "The Gods of Man: Gods of Nature - God of War" available from Amazon and other online stores.
“It is the task of the Divine to condemn the errors of antiquity, and of the philologists to account for them; I will only pray you to read, with patience, and human sympathy, the thoughts of men who lived without blame in a darkness they could not dispel and to remember that, whatever charge of folly may justly attach to the saying, ‘There is no God,’ the folly is prouder, deeper, and less pardonable, in saying; ‘There is no God but for me.’”
--John Ruskin, 1819-1900 (1)
Humankind has a need to recognize a god or gods—be they nature spirits or large and fearsome gods of terror. Early man, regardless if they were Neanderthal, Homo Erectus or Ramapithicus, experienced god as a force of nature—the rising sun, the circling moon, the continued flow of the rivers and the winds. He may have found god in one of the many fierce predators that he faced in the struggle for survival as well.
The origins of religion are perhaps tied to primal fear. “The idea,” wrote Brenda Lewis, “that all misfortunes had its origin in the supernatural world—whether it was disease, drought, famine, floods, volcanic eruptions or any other calamity—was recognized wherever people lived close to Nature and its depredations.“ (2) Lewis notes, “The development of human spirituality and an understanding of violent and unpredictable Nature went hand in hand with human evolution.” (3)
Fear continues to be a major factor in religion and why we embrace it. Some welcome religion as a comfort against adversity and as a protection against evil—much in the same way as our ancient ancestors did when religion was embodied in the form of an animal or nature spirit.
Lewis summed it up when she wrote, “First personalized into gods, then into more spiritual beings resembling humans, but infinitely more powerful, Nature’s potential to assault and destroy has been humanity’s perennial predicament.” (4)
However, these early gods of nature were not only fearful but worshipped as gods of fertility, of life renewed and consistent. It is this combination, as well as a combination of the dual aspects of nature—both good and evil, that carries over into contemporary culture and how many of us view “God” today.
Because early man felt the need to credit the gods with the acts of Nature as well as his own foibles he also needed to give some responsibility to the gods for perceived evil—either the destructive actions of Nature or the anti-social and violent acts of fellow men. In Christianity this was the doing of Satan, a god of evil—the fallen angel who wished to usurp the kingdom of God.
However, “evil” at one time was regarded as part of the dual aspect of the universe and was a creation of God. Evil in the Old Testament was not assigned to demons but as a logical conclusion that if God created all then he also created evil along with good. “…for if we credit God with all Good things, we must also credit him with Evil ones”. (5) As Anthony Mercatante noted, “…in the Old Testament there is no concept of demons in the sense of preternatural powers that can intervene in man’s life; the Old Testament attributes all man’s misfortunes to God, not to demons.” (6)
One specific passage in the Old Testament makes it quite clear that evil arises not from Satan but from God:
“I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the Lord do all these things.” (7)
This was a common belief of most early religions and one that caused the need for regular propitiations and sacrifice to pacify the gods. It was also this belief that contributed to the belief that the gods took sides and could be persuaded to align themselves with nations and to annihilate their enemy, i.e., “God is on our side.” This belief continues to this day and is used often by political leaders and in churches when priests and ministers request God to fight against “terrorists” and other perceived enemies as well as against gays, Wiccans and others not in the mainstream of society.
We may wonder how the pantheons of gods, goddesses and demigods originated in ancient times. Until recent years, the comfortable theory of human evolution has said that sedentary villages with their associated burials, temples, agriculture and hearths began around 8500 BCE during the Neolithic period. Gradually this scenario has changed in the face of archaeological anomalies, which occurred more and more frequently that indicates human evolution began much earlier with technological and social advancements. A recent article in Minerva Magazine (8) by professor Helmut Ziegert of Hamburg University illustrates the changing mind set of archaeologist today. According to Ziegert, Homo Erectus as long ago as 900,000 years BCE had mastered trans-oceanic travel and had sedentary villages dating back to 400,000 years. Such villages included cemeteries. Homo Erectus, says Dr. Ziegert, “was socially more akin to modern humans than to his primitive predecessors.”
The very existence of cemeteries 900,000 years in age indicates that humankind has believed in a need to care for the deceased. Such care may indicate that a belief in the continuation of the spirit after death, i.e. “life after death,” existed. In addition, such evidence may exist that these very early humans practiced “ancestor worship” as a precursor of worshipping a deity or deities. Ancestor worship has been overused as a term of explanation for early religious practice, however.
John S. Mbiti, Professor of Religious Studies at Makerere University, wrote the following concerning ancestor worship:
“…the departed, whether parents, brothers, sisters, or children, form part of the family, and must therefore be kept in touch with their surviving relatives. Libation and the giving of food to the departed are tokens of fellowship, hospitality and respect; the drink and food so given are symbols of family continuity and contact.” (9)
Ancestor worship, according to Mbiti, is only one small segment of any “primitive” religion. If we agree that Homo Erectus established cemeteries, worshipped his ancestors or at least was concerned with their well-being after death, we must also agree that he had a concept of a deity that was tied directly to nature, the acts of nature, and the continuation of existence.
To early man the most fearsome threat to his existence was the predatory animals that lived alongside of him. These animals played an important part in Paleolithic ritual and religion. It is this which is the earliest evidence of religion.
One of the earliest and finest examples of prehistoric art depicting an animal in a god-like image was created approximately 32,000 years ago and placed in the Hohlenstein Stadel Cave in southern Germany. Carved from a mammoths tusk, this statue, almost 30 cm in height, portrays a being with a man’s body and a lions head. Other animal-headed figures have been found at Chauvet Cave in France. This statue was a hybrid figure with a man’s body and a bison’s head. It is interesting during this time that images of the male always included these man-animal figures but women were always portrayed realistically.
The famous drawings of “sorcerers” obviously reflect a supernatural image. One of these, known as the “Horned God” found at Trois Frères, France “combines the beard, legs and feet of a human being, the antlers and ears of a deer, the face of an owl, the tail of a horse and the sexual organs of a lion.” (10)
Current archaeological theory is that these ancient images were used to convey religious “signs” to initiates. These images conveyed the fear and awe felt by early man as well as the power that was inherent in these animals. Animal-men that were worshipped as the dual aspect of nature. By “becoming” part of these powerful beings men were able to feel that they had some control over nature, that they shared in the spiritual being of the gods.
They also were able to feel that they had some interactive influence with the supernatural and could call upon it in need.
Nowhere else was the development of hybrid gods more eloquent than in ancient Egypt. However, these gods appear to have been universally regarded throughout the world and throughout various times. They are found in Native American rock art and mythology, Australia, throughout Asia, Africa and Europe. Are these, perhaps, the remnants of an ancient and primordial religion that at one time united humankind?
Many of the hybrid Egyptian gods and goddesses, such as Anubis , are known to have originated before the beginning of recorded time and may date back to the time when hybrid gods took shape in the Paleolithic. The lion-headed god which was beautifully represented in the 32,000 year old statue discussed above from Germany is mimicked in Egyptian art from the Greco-Roman period.
The hybrid god has existed in human culture for at least 32,000 years and possibly for another 900,000 years. Hybrid gods most likely were chosen because the actual animal they represent is a dangerous one or one that could offer protection.
In regards to Egyptian gods, according to Egyptologists Lorna Oakes and Lucia Gahlin, “another consideration appears to have been that, by depicting a deity in the form of a dangerous animal such as the snake (for example, the fertility goddess Renenutet or Mertseger, the patron deity of the west Theban peak), and then by worshipping that deity, the animal in question might in turn be placated and the hazard allayed.” (11)
In addition, many of the animals were believed to have protective powers and their images were used to ward off harm and evil. Undoubtedly, these same considerations played into the early forms of Paleolithic religion as well.
The gradual transition of animal gods to anthropomorphic (human-like) gods is explained by Sir James Frazer.
According to Frazer, many of the ancient animal gods that humans worshipped became figures of sacrifice in later times. For example, followers of Mithras were baptized in bull’s blood. Scenes of bull-slayings, according to D. Jason Cooper, were “meant to encompass the whole of the religion’s teachings.” (12) Such images, according to Cooper, “defines the religion more closely than the crucifix, the Star of David, and the crescent define Christianity, Judaism, and Islam respectively.” (13)
And who slays the bull? Mithras, of course. Similar religious symbols exist in other ancient religions as well. Dionysus, god of wine and vegetation was also known as “eater of bulls” and he is often represented eating raw goat’s blood. Dionysus is himself the slayer. In ancient Egypt Apis, (14) the bull, was slain annually. Perhaps regarded as the most sacred of all animals, the slain bull was mummified and buried with the same ceremony, as a pharaoh would receive.
In all of these examples the sacrificed animal was, at an earlier time, the god. In the case of Dionysus and Mithras the symbolism is that the god sacrifices himself. Apis, being the earthly representation of Ptah, the Creator, is also sacrificed so that creation can be renewed.
Similar sacrifices were common among the Jews as well. According to scholar E.O. James, “The priest was to sacrifice a bullock for a sin-offering for himself and the rest of the priesthood and a ram for a burnt-offering. Then he was to ‘set before Yahweh’ two he-goats. Lots were cast upon them to determine which was to be assigned to Yahweh as a sin-offering, and which was to be presented to a goat demon, Azazel, as the sin-receiver.” (15) By conducting such a sacrifice, life would continue for the Jews with their sins washed away by the goat’s blood.
Bulls were sacrificed annually in Iceland at the assembly of the Icelandic Parliament, known as the Althing, until 1000 CE when Christianity took hold but continued in secrecy by decree of the Althing.
Evidence of ancient animal sacrifices have been found in several caves in Europe, most notably at Drachenlock in Switzerland where bear skulls had been arranged by Neanderthals in such as way that magic and ritual are indicated. In southern France, the skulls and bones of as many as twenty bears were arranged in a rectangular pit, which had been sealed with a stone slab weighing one ton. Bear sacrifice continues into the 21st century among the Ainu of Japan—the indigenous people of that country.
Many archaeologists believe that bear worship was practiced among the Neanderthal and that the bear’s sacrifice was an extension of that worship.
In many ways, these ancient expressions of sacrifice have continued into contemporary society and religious practice. While these early sacrifices reflected the belief in sacrificing the god, so that life is renewed, contemporary Christian practice incorporate similar ritual in the communion. The ritual drinking of the “blood of Christ” as represented by the communal wine and the eating of the flesh of Christ by consuming the bread or cracker are symbolic of this ritual cannibalization of the god. The crucifixion itself is comparable with this ritual killing of the god. Carl Jung, in comparing the mysteries of Mithras with the Christian mysteries wrote “The representations of the sacrificial act, the tauroctony (bull slaying), recall the crucifixion between two thieves, one whom is raised up to paradise while the other goes down to hell.” (16)
It should be noted that these ritual sacrifices only result in the temporary death of the god’s body but not of the god itself and, in fact, the god is usually instrumental in his own sacrifice as evidenced by the death of Odin, Mithras, Dionysus and Jesus and other savior gods. The Christian sacrament is, according to 19th century scholar Kersey Graves, “copied, or reproduced (from) an old pagan rite as part of his (Jesus’) professedly new and spiritual system, one of the most ancient and widely-extended formulas of pagandom.” (17)
Gods exist for the comfort of their creators. This is not to say that a supreme force, an intelligence, a creative-destructive being does not exist but the gods that have been fashioned since Paleolithic days are created in a way that comforts the mind, that allows humans to explain events, to seek revenge, to pass on the faults of ones own to another supernatural being that has control over ones life and destiny. That these gods originated as animal-human hybrids is indicative of the time when humans or human-like creatures first obtained a glimpse of the unknown and the powers that existed outside of man’s control.
1. Ruskin, John. The Queen of the Air: Being A Study of the Greek Myths of Cloud and Storm. Chicago: Homewood Publishing Company, nd., 10
2. Lewis, Brenda Ralph. Ritual Sacrifice: Blood and Redemption. Phoenix Mill: Sutton Publishing Limited 2006, 1.
3. Ibid., vii.
4. Ibid., 1.
5. Mercantante, Anthony S. Good and Evil in Myth & Legend. New York: Barnes & Noble Books 1996, 4.
7. Isaiah 45: 7
8. Ziegert, Helmut. “A New Dawn for Humanity: Lower Palaeolithic Village Life in Libya and Ethiopia”, in Minerva –The International Review of Ancient Art & Archaeology, July/August 2007 (Vol 18.4)
10. Mbiti, John S. African Religions and Philosophy. New York: Anchor Books 1969, 11.
11. Mohen, Jean-Pierre. Prehistoric Art: The Mythical Birth of Humanity. Paris: Telleri 2002, 139.
12. Oakes, Lorna and Lucia Gahlin. Ancient Egypt. New York: Barnes & Noble Books 2006, 269.
13. Cooper, D. Jason. Mithras: Mysteries and Initiation Rediscovered. York Beach: Samuel Weiser, Inc. 1996, 59.
15. Apis was the manifestation of the Creator God of Memphis, Ptah.
16. James, E.O. The Ancient Gods. Edison: Castle Books 2004, 155.
17. Graves, Kersey. The World’s Sixteen Crucified Saviors. Kempton: Adventures Unlimited Press 2001, 200. A reprint of the 1875 publication.